Tested: 1994 Land Rover Defender 90

From the Archive: The newest British sporting machine.

Originally from the February 1994 Issue.

What do you buy when you want your transportation to be athletic and distinctive but find that when you're behind the wheel of a sports car, your driving record accumulates so many points that the state threatens to shred your license, incinerate the scraps, and bury the ashes in a distant toxic waste dump? May we suggest an alternative form of sporting transport from the British Isles, the Land Rover Defender 90?

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

With styling derived from the Land Rovers that explorers have relied upon from the Zambezi River to the Khyber Pass for over forty years, the Defender 90 stands out in urban America like a gorilla in a boardroom. Not even a Lamborghini Diablo-fitted with its optional rear wing will distinguish its driver from the flocks of commuters in their sedans more thoroughly than the Defender 90, especially when it's bright yellow.

HIGHS: Outstanding off-road capability, cuts a distinctive profile among the herds of commuters.

Yet despite its standout profile and visual presence, the Defender 90 will relieve the pressure on your driving record that your sports-car habit has created. That's because the Defender discourages high-speed driving more than perhaps any other vehicle on the American market.

On the freeway at 70 mph, the hum of its huge, LT265/75SR-16 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/As collude with the roaring of the wind over and through its softtop to create an 86-dBA din. This not only makes trying to listen to the stereo system an exercise in futility, but it also makes most trips seem a lot longer than they ever seemed in more conventional vehicles.

In the rain, the cacophony in the cockpit increases as water droplets flung from the deeply lugged tires pelt the uninsulated sheetmetal of the fender and floor panels. The top is reasonably waterproof, however, so the occupants are not drenched with moisture as well as with noise.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Drop your speed to about 50 mph and the noise level subsides significantly. You can then begin to appreciate the decent ride and the torquey pull of the all-aluminum 3.9-liter V-8, the same powerplant used in the larger and substantially more luxurious Range Rover.

This engine provides decent punch for most driving, capable of accelerating the 3880-pound two-seater to 60 mph in 10.2 seconds when wound out. However, the engine seems happiest at moderate revs, where its ample torque yields effortless and unstrained running.

LOWS: Noisy and tiring on the freeway, lofty sticker price.

This low-end grunt is particularly appreciated when you take the Defender 90 over the river and through the woods. Shift the transfer case into low range and the transmission into first gear and the V-8's steady idle and smooth throttle response let you delicately pick your way over boulders and around tree stumps with no need for clutching and braking. If you somehow manage to stall the engine, you can engage the starter in gear—even on a steep slope—and avoid a critical clutch engagement in a precarious position.

Thanks to the full-time four-wheel-drive system and the Defender's uncanny ability to keep its tires on the ground, it’s virtually impossible to exhaust the vehicle's traction unless you find yourself on a field of large boulders and get one or more tires up in the air. Live axles are used at both ends, much like on the Range Rover, but the Defender uses coil springs instead of computer-controlled air springs and lacks the larger machine's viscous limited-slip device in the center differential.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

With generous ground clearance, a short wheelbase, and very small front and rear overhangs, the Defender is tremendously agile. You can drive straight up hills that seem as steep as walls and slalom through closely spaced trees and boulders with ease. And there is the comfort of a stout-looking, rubber-encased roll cage should you somehow manage to push the Defender beyond its prodigious off-road capabilities.

Though we haven't tested the Defender 90 back-to-back with any of its off-road competitors, a few sessions in the wilds of Wyoming have convinced us that the Defender is as capable in the wilderness as any vehicle sold in America.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Back in the real world, though, you pay for this specialized excellence in a variety of ways. We've already mentioned the Defender 90' unsuitability for extended freeway flogs. It's also rather basic when it comes to creature comforts. For example, the standard equipment includes no back seat and no top whatsoever. The interior finish consists of painted metal, hard plastic, all-weather cloth upholstery and rubber mats. Naturally, there are no memory power seats, trip computers, or even cruise control.

Not that this is inappropriate for serious wilderness exploration. But it should be c lear to potential buyers that the Defender 90 is not as multifariously capable as the company's Range Rover, which seems equally at home on safari as it does en route to the country club.

However, in line with recent Rover tradition, the Defender's price is on the dear side. Base price is $28,495 and our test car, complete with top, air conditioning, aluminum wheels, running boards, brush bar, carpeting, and lamp guards, came to $34,738. For comparison, it's hard to get a Jeep Wrangler much over $20,000 fully loaded.

THE VERDICT: The rustic interpretation of the British sports car.

If you 're trading in a high-performance road-burner, of course, that price should be right in your range. What's more, with probably no more than 5000 examples to be sold in America, you won't be encountering Defender 90s at every intersection, on or off road. As transportation at your vacation bungalow in Aspen or Jackson Hole, the Defender is just the thing to sustain your image. Just remember to save a few dollars for a new wardrobe. You'll need to trade in your driving gloves for Patagonia Gore-Tex mittens.

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